Today is a holiday in Britain and America. But here at Markets and Money, we are on the job – because there are things that need to be reckoned with.
Before we get down to serious reckoning, however, we give you a look at the news from the end of last week.
On Friday, the Dow fell another 145 points. Oil stuck around $132 and the dollar at $1.57 per euro. Gold rose to $925.
Remember when you could buy an ounce of gold for less than $100? We do. Remember when you could buy a gallon of gas for 25 cents? We do. What is Memorial Day for…but for remembering?
First, let us pause for a moment of silence, in honour of our ancestors, our veterans and our war dead. Like Pericles, we recognize that we have a big debt to the generations that went before us — their sacrifices have helped made us what we are…and made the country what it is. They saved. They invented. They built. What we see around us is mostly the result of their hard work…and many years of saving. If our ancestors had used up everything they produced, there would have been nothing left behind. But they didn’t. They left us their inventions and their constructions. They left us money, too. In the post-WWI period up until the mid-‘1980s, America was the world’s biggest creditor. More people owed more money to Americans than to any other nation. Public finances were occasionally stretched – such as during WWII itself – but from the founding of the republic almost until the Reagan years, each federal administration generally tried to leave the government cash till in about the same state it found it.
But in the space of a single generation, that huge legacy of capital and custom has been squandered. Now, the United States is the world’s greatest debtor – by a huge margin. Every year, it spends approximately 6% more than it earns. Its leaders have abandoned the virtuous practices of their ancestors. They no longer even pay them the homage of hypocrisy; they don’t even pretend to balance the budget, and the latest tally reported in these reckonings put the total unfunded liability at $61 trillion. This has effectively bankrupted the average family. It also turns every new baby in the U.S.A. into a major debtor – with more than $100,000 worth of unpaid bills –on the day he is born.
So we have a lot to remember this Memorial Day, and a lot to reckon with.
Warren Buffett was born in 1930. He must remember what the United States was like when it was still growing and genuinely prosperous.
“I’m fond of 1929,” said he a few months ago. “I was conceived that year and have always had an agreeable feeling towards the crash.”
Now, the richest man in the world, Buffett has come to Europe looking for better investments.
In an interview for Der Speigel, the Sage of the Plains said the United States was already in a recession and that it would be “deeper and longer than people think.”
He was in Madrid over the weekend, so we picked up a copy of El Pais to see what else he was saying.
When will growth in the U.S. economy pick up, the Spanish paper wanted to know?
“I have no idea,” Buffett replied.
When will the financial markets stabilize?” El Pais persisted.
“No idea about that either.”
So you see, Buffett could write for Markets and Money; he would fit right in. Go ahead; ask us a question. We’ll give you the same answer Buffett gives:
We have no idea. But we do have opinions.
And in our opinion, George Soros is probably right when he says:
“The current financial crisis was precipitated by a bubble in the US housing market. In some ways it resembles other crises that have occurred since the end of the second world war at intervals ranging from four to 10 years. However, there is a profound difference: the current crisis marks the end of an era of credit expansion based on the dollar as the international reserve currency. The periodic crises were part of a larger boom-bust process. The current crisis is the culmination of a super-boom that has lasted for more than 60 years.”
*** Yes, it was a super-boom that Soros describes. And it coincided with your author’s life. He was born at the beginning of it. He has now reached what he thinks is the end of it. That financial super-boom also probably marked America’s great peak – when everything went so well for so long that politicians and central bankers all wanted to claim credit for it.
But the tippy top of the peak also coincided with a number of trends and events that made it possible. Among the most important was a low oil price. Back in the ‘70s, the price of oil went to $30 – and shocked the world. It stayed around that level for 5 years, long enough to convince people that it was permanent. Consumers – especially in Europe – learned to live with less energy. Oil companies spent fortunes to produce more. And then the price plummeted back to $10…and world enjoyed a great boom.
That boom seems to be over, it drowned in the rising tide of the oil price. The black goo has gone up $50 a barrel since last September. The world’s consumers and producers should simply take the price clue with good grace – cutting back consumption and looking for new supplies, just as they did in the ‘70s.
That is what is happening. The oil companies are spending four times as much on exploration as they did eight years ago. And consumers are being forced to cut back too. But it is not all that is happening. Central banks are fighting the correction with everything they have – and all they have is cheap money.
As you know, the combination of higher fuel prices…and lower housing prices…is squeezing America’s family. Comes news at the end of last week that the typical house in California is down 32% from a year ago. The state also has the second highest foreclosure rate in the nation, with one out of every 204 houses going back to lenders.
The other thing putting pressure on U.S. family budgets is the price of food. For the 15 years, up to 2007, food prices rose only 2.5% per year. This was the “Great Moderation” that central banks felt so proud of. But in the last 12 months, food prices are said to be up 4%.
We use the expression “said to be” as a polite way so saying that the government is lying. The raw data show food prices going up twice to three times as fast. Wholesale food prices are going up even faster. And every independent tally of prices at the supermarket shows much bigger increases than the government’s numbers are willing to confess.
For example, on this Memorial Day, you’ll find the price of hot dogs about 7% higher than a year ago, according to the Associated Press. Soda and potato chips are 10% higher. And hamburger buns are up 17%.
What do we have to thank for such high prices? Partly, it is a natural, cyclical trend in the food sector. But that’s not all. There is also all that cheap money that central banks are putting out. Speculators are using it to wager on oil…and food.
*** Think you’ve got it bad. El Pais sent a reporter to Cuba to see how the island was doing now that Fidel has stepped down.
It appears that bro’ Raul is trying to take the country in the direction China has taken: preserve the communists’ grip on power, but give the economy some air.
The El Pais reporter found a country desperate for some fresh air. Nothing seems to work – not even the public toilets. And thanks to bad agricultural policies (collective farming) vast tracks of what would otherwise be productive farmland have gone to seed. A nasty shrub tree, the marabu, has taken over. Crews of laborers work all day, with machetes, clearing them out.
A man can clear two “cordels” of land in a day, each measuring 400 square meters, says the reporter. For each cordel cleared in the Cuban worker’s paradise, he is paid 1 euro (about $1.57).
But if the money is bad, the satisfaction is worse.
“You can clear a whole field,” said one worker, “and then if they don’t put tractors and pesticide on it, you’ve done nothing. It [the marabu] just comes back.”
*** “When the price of oil was $25 and gold was $300, it was easy to know what to do with your money,” lamented MoneyWeek editor Merryn Somerset Webb last week. “Now, it’s not so easy.”
A friend in Paris echoed her sentiment on the weekend:
“I just don’t know what to do…I’ve got all my money in cash, because I can’t decide…and the dollar is falling. This is terrible. What should I do?”
We gave our friend the same answer Buffett gave El Pais. We don’t know.
It is not given to man to know his fate. We don’t know what will happen.
Still, you need to make decisions. So, here we offer a very little, very modest bit of advice. It is worth every penny you pay for your Markets and Money subscription:
First, pay attention to your business…or your earnings. This is where you get your money. Make sure you understand what you’re doing.
Then, make sure your costs are lower than your income.
If you have a house, make sure it is a place to live, not a speculation.
When you invest, there too make sure you’re really investing – not speculating. Buffett told El Pais what he always tells investors: never invest in anything you don’t understand. If you don’t understand it – that is, how the underlying business works and how you will make money from it – it’s not an investment. It’s just a speculation.
Right now, we are putting cash into three things:
1) Gold…for all the reasons you have read about in these Markets and Moneys. Is gold going up? We don’t know…we think there is a fair chance of it. But we don’t care; the gold (we hope) is for the next generation.
2) Swiss francs…because it is not the dollar
3) Emerging markets…because they are going up; it’s a trend we think will continue as the world economy regresses to the mean. We suggest an ETF of major developing markets…recognizing that some will probably fail and others will continue to grow.
What about oil? What about commodities? We don’t know enough about them to speculate. But from what we see, they look toppy.
Markets and Money